Mystery novelist helps us to imagine a younger Poe
For a man who has been dead more than 150 years, Edgar Allan Poe is enjoying quite a lot of attention.
Two new books focus on fictionalized versions of his life and the aftermath of his death. 'The Poe Shadow' by Matthew Pearl follows a man obsessed with getting to the truth of the poet's demise. 'The Pale Blue Eye' by Louis Bayard envisions a young and very much alive Poe caught up in the midst of a murder committed on the grounds of West Point Academy in 1830.
Bayard's narrator, Gus Landor, is a former New York City police detective now living in seclusion in the Hudson Highlands. He is summoned to the fledgling academy to solve a horrific crime - a cadet has been murdered and his body mutilated. Landor, a widower content to live alone, grudgingly takes on the case. In the early days of his investigation he chances upon a bright, yet awkward underclassman - Cadet Fourth Classman Poe. Struck by the young man's intelligence, he commandeers him as an assistant.
What follows is a period mystery in the tradition of 'Quincunx' by Charles Palliser and 'The Alienist' by Caleb Carr. Like those authors, Bayard has the ability to transport his readers back in time. His language and attention to historical detail are pitch perfect and enveloping. But it's the main two characters who intrigue and absorb readers.
Bayard's narrator is witty with the observant eye of a man trained to sniff out criminals and wrongdoing. Even with his foibles, this is a fellow to trust and rely on to navigate the twists and turns of a murder mystery. Landor knows when to speak and when to quietly make a wry aside to the reader, as when he gallantly refuses payment from West Point Commandant Ethan Allen Hitchcock and his stuffy assistant.
'I smiled … and they smiled, too, to show they'd saved a sum of money, and they called me a fine American and I forget what else, though I know the word principle got used. Paragon, too.'
While Landor is reserved and ironic, Poe is portrayed as earnest and bordering on loquacious. Bayard delivers the expected physical description - looming forehead, large eyes - and caps it with, of all things, a description of his teeth: 'tiny and exquisite, the sort you might find on the necklace of a cannibal chieftain.'
As Poe endeavors to uncover a murderer, perhaps one of his own classmates, a shadowy picture of his future tortured soul pokes through the story. Here is a bright 21-year-old blessed with a keen intellect yet cursed with a painful and neglected past.
But Poe isn't the only one hiding secrets. Throughout 'The Pale Blue Eye' there are hints of a painful incident in Landor's background, one that upsets and baffles the reader more than it appears to haunt the narrator. As the tragic event is revealed, and its connection to the rest of the story made known, the reader will be astonished and impressed.
Bayard, whose last novel, 'Mr. Timothy,' was named a New York Times Notable Book, is a remarkable writer. This is a literary mystery with unforgettable characters and solid plotting, molded together by beautiful language.
Poe shouldn't roll over in his grave. More than likely, he's too busy applauding.
Reading in Portland this week:
Douglas Coupland's new novel, 'JPod,' follows six co-workers as they struggle to free themselves from 'a massive Vancouver video game design company.' The author of 'Generation X' and 'Microserfs' will read at 7:30 p.m. Friday, June 16, at Powell's City of Books (1005 W. Burnside St., 503-228-4651).
The subtitle of Christopher Healy's book says it all: 'The Sane Man's Guide to the Insane World of New Fatherhood.' In 'Pop Culture,' Healy, a self-proclaimed 'Sherpa Dad' explores what it means to be a father in the age of hands-on paternity. Healy will appear at 11 a.m. Saturday, June 17, at A Children's Place Bookstore (4807 N.E. Fremont St., 503-284-8294).
'The Cold Moon' is the latest in the Lincoln Rhyme suspense series by Jeffrey Deaver. This time wheelchair-bound Rhyme and his ladylove, Amelia Sachs, are investigating a chilling killer they've dubbed 'The Watchmaker,' thanks to the clocks he leaves at his murder scenes. Deaver will read 7 p.m. Monday, June 19, at the Beaverton Borders (2605 S.W. Cedar Hills Blvd., 503-644-6164).